Seeking to shape the national debate over immigration reform this summer, three Arizona Republicans have reintroduced a guest worker proposal that could lead to permanent residency for 10 million people here illegally.
A similar measure offered in 2003 by Sen. John McCain and Reps. Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe failed because it didn’t raise enough support from immigration rights advocates. This time, the political trio has powerful new allies — Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a leader of the Congressional Hispanic caucus.
As a result, Thursday’s announcement attracted immediate praise from groups ranging from labor unions to Hispanic civil rights organizations and religious coalitions.
"We finally have something that is a comprehensive attempt at immigration reform," said Dick White, cochairman of East Valley Interfaith. "It will begin the national dialogue. We have been avoiding it and dancing around it and not getting to talk about the issue."
But the bill also returns in the aftermath of Arizona voters approving Proposition 200 and growing efforts to establish civilian border patrols to slow the tide of illegal crossings from Mexico. So the sponsors emphasized Thursday they believe a guest-worker program, along with new border security measures and tougher employer sanctions, would reduce the potential risk of terrorism.
"Right now, our border leaks like a sieve. We have too few agents chasing too many workers and not paying enough attention to those who might come and do us harm," said Flake. "If we have a legal framework for legal workers to come and go home, we can spend a lot more resources on those who provide a national security threat."
This bill was attacked two years ago by advocates for strict immigration control as a form of amnesty for illegal immigrants, which Congress tried in 1986 but didn’t secure the border.
Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., revived the amnesty allegation Thursday in a statement immediately after the bill was unveiled in Washington, D.C.
"If recent history is an accurate guide, and I believe it is, this so-called guest worker notion would only encourage a new wave of illegal aliens and make America’s uncontrolled and unacceptable immigration debacle even worse than it is now," said Hayworth.
But Flake said Hayworth and other critics are ignoring key details. Anyone working in the U.S. illegally could obtain work visas, but would have to wait for years to find out if they might eligible for permanent "green cards," and they would have to pay fines and back taxes.
Foreign workers applying from their home countries would pay much less and could apply for permanent residency immediately, Flake said.
"There’s a substantial incentive to go through the new worker program as opposed to being here as an illegal," Flake said. "For those who say there’s going to be a rush to be here . . . I just don’t think so."
Attempting to gather more support for their plan, McCain, Flake and Kolbe added other immigration policy issues, such as new requirements for use of border surveillance technology, expanding the number of businesses that would face random checks from immigration officials, and hiking fines for employers caught hiring illegal workers.
The proposal also would require Congress to fully fund the cost for states and local governments to jail criminals who are here illegally and to provide medical care for other migrants.
"All of that is encouraging," said Jeanine L’Ecuyer, press secretary for Gov. Janet Napolitano. "It’s a move, and we haven’t seen much movement before now."
Other Democrats in the Arizona Legislature tried to use Thursday’s announcement to halt several state bills that would deny additional government services to illegal immigrants, revoke their right to bail and ban the use of tax dollars for day labor centers.
But a majority of Republican state lawmakers gave final approval to the bills anyway.
Details: Here are details of the proposed Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, introduced Thursday by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Reps. Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe, both R-Ariz.
• Increase use of federal agents and surveillance technology, including unmanned aerial vehicles, to patrol border.
• Expand number of random audits of employers for compliance with hiring laws.
• Create biometric identification documents to help employers verify status of potential workers.
• Double fines for employers who knowingly hire illegal workers.
New guest workers
• Low-skilled workers could apply for a new visa called H-5A from their home country.
• Workers would be immediately eligible to apply for permanent residency.
• Visas would be valid for up to six years, then workers must return to home country if they haven’t qualified for permanent residency.
• Limited to 400,000 visas a year, but that limit could be adjusted gradually based on labor demands.
Existing illegal workers
• Could apply for temporary visa called H-5B, valid for six years, that also would extend to families.
• Applicants would have to demonstrate work history and pass criminal background checks.
• They would have to wait for six years to apply for permanent residency, and they would have to pay fines of $2,000 or more as well as back taxes to qualify.
• Would fully reimburse states and local governments for costs of jailing illegal immigrants.
• Would fully reimburse doctors and hospitals for medical treatment.
SOURCE: Rep. Jeff Flake’s office